SHI’ITE FIGHTERS launch a mortar round toward Islamic State lines in al-Fatha, northeast of Baiji, in 2015. Iraqi forces, backed by Shi’ite militia fighters, say they have retaken a mountain palace complex of former president Saddam Hussein from Islamic State fighters, as government forces push ahea.
(photo credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)
In a speech delivered on May 9, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, secretary-general of the Hezbollah Nujaba movement in Iraq, delivered a series of threats against Israel. Hezbollah Nujaba is an Iran-supported Shia militia. It is affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi, which is a gathering of mainly Shia, mainly pro-Iran military groups. Kaabi’s speech is by itself of only passing interest. But it is an indication of the growing involvement of Tehran’s Iraqi servants in Iran’s preparations for conflict with Israel – and not only on the verbal level.
In his speech, Kaabi accused Israel of supporting “takfiri” organizations – the Shia militias’ and Iran’s preferred term for Sunni groups such as Islamic State. The “takfiri” groups, Kaabi said, wage a “proxy war” on behalf of the “Zionist entity,” so that it may “enjoy peace, while its proxies are killing the Muslims.” The Shia militia leader pledged that after the “takfiri” groups are defeated, the goal of his organization will be to “completely end [the Zionist entity’s] existence and restore the land to its rightful owners.”
This is not the first time that Kaabi has expressed himself in this manner. On February 13, 2018, the Nujaba leader visited Beirut and pledged that his movement would “stand with the axis of resistance” in a future conflict with Israel. On March 8, 2017, Kaabi announced the formation of the “Golan Liberation Brigade,” intended to take part in a future war against Israel on the Golan.
From one point of view, Kaabi’s words might seem somewhat pretentious – coming as they do from the leader of a force of around 9,000 lightly armed militiamen. It is indeed unlikely that his threats will cause the commanders of the IDF’s 210th Bashan Division on the Golan Heights any sleepless nights just yet.
Nevertheless, the Nujaba leader’s latest comments reflect a deeper reality – namely, that the land area encompassing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today constitutes a single arena, from an Iranian operational point of view. Kaabi’s controllers, in the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have freedom of action in each of these areas, and operate a coordinated strategy across their entirety. This strategy involves the centralized coordination and use of the many political and military elements that the Iranians have established across this space and which they sponsor.
This is a new situation for Israel. Addressing it requires a broadening of focus, and paying closer attention to players and geographical areas formerly of only peripheral interest. Conversations with Israeli officials suggest that this widening of the lens of observation is taking place.
IN THIS regard, an article published this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is worthy of close attention. The piece, authored by IDF Brig.-Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion and veteran Iraq analyst Michael Knights, focuses on indications that Iran is making use of its Iraqi militia clients to deploy short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in the deserts of western Iraq – with the intention that these could be launched against Israel at a time of Iran’s choosing.
These indications are of particular relevance given the current high level of tension in the Persian Gulf.
Knights and Orion’s article is not the first public airing of Iranian activity in this regard. A Reuters report on August 31, 2018, was the first to note the concerns of US and Israeli intelligence agencies. The article detailed the transfer by the IRGC’s Quds Force of Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles and launchers to western Iraq. The Zolfaqar has a claimed range of 750 km. – putting Tel Aviv within its range, if it was deployed in this area. The distance from al-Qaim on the Iraqi-Syrian border to Tel Aviv is 632 km.
Tehran has also established facilities for missile production in western Iraq, and is employing Iraqi citizens to carry out this work. The Reuters article named the areas where production is taking place as “al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Karbala.”
Knights and Orion refocus on this developing story, offering substantial new details. Specifically, the article names three militias as among the recipients of Iranian “long-range artillery rockets” – the aforementioned Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Ktaeb Hezbollah, and the Badr Organization.
The article notes that ‘these Shia proxies have reportedly developed exclusive use of secure bases in the provinces of Diyala (e.g., Camp Ashraf), Salah al-Din (Camp Speicher), Baghdad (Jurf al-Sakhar), Karbala (Razzaza), and Wasit (Suwayrah).”
The authors also point out that in “Iraqi, US and Israeli” intelligence circles, it is widely accepted that the “militias have developed a line of communication and control to Iran through Diyala, allowing them to import missiles and equipment without government approval or knowledge.”
The ability of Iran to operate a de facto contiguous line of control across Iraq, and thence to Syria, Lebanon and the borders with the Golan Heights is thus not under serious doubt. It appears that Tehran has begun to station SRBMs along this route, directed at Israel and crewed by the Quds Force-directed militia franchises, an arrangement intended to provide Iran with deniability in the event of their being used.
The latest episodes at the Port of Fujairah in the UAE and the Aramco East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia this week suggest that Iran intends to follow a strategy precisely of deniability and use of proxies in its attempts to hit back at US efforts to contain and roll back Iranian advances of recent years. Israel is not outside of this circle. As an unnamed Iranian official quoted by Reuters put it: “If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region.”
It may be assumed that relevant Israeli agencies take careful note of threats of this kind, along with the more florid pronunciations of such figures as Kaabi. These are not mere chatter. In the remote deserts of western Iraq, Iran’s servants are busily at work preparing a new front against Israel.
The writer is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Middle East Forum.
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